BOSTON — Massachusetts is one step closer to giving gamblers the ultimate jackpot: casinos within the Bay State's borders.
After eight hours of heated debate, the state House on Wednesday night passed a bill allowing the construction of three casinos, a move proponents believe will generate much-needed tax revenue for the cash-strapped state and provide an economic shot in the arm.
The bill now heads to the state Senate, where it is expected to pass.
"Thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually serve as the cornerstone of the legislation before us," said Rep. Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat and chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies.
"I can't ignore the thousands of jobs. I can't and I won't ignore the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue" that Massachusetts now loses by forcing slot machine lovers and poker players to drive to Connecticut or other states that allow gambling.
The bill was approved by a bipartisan 123-32 vote. Its passage was slowed by the offering of more than 100 amendments, most of which were dismissed by House leaders without debate.
Proponents have been pushing the issue for years, but previous efforts have fallen short. This time, however, the measure has broad support, including the backing of House and Senate leaders and Gov. Deval Patrick, all Democrats.
But other Democrats have raised fierce objections.
Rep. Ruth B. Balser, a Democrat who represents the City of Newton, just west of Boston, is one of the loudest critics of the legislation. She took to the House floor to blast the bill, and told The Washington Times that her state is opening a Pandora's box of problems and likely won't realize the economic relief that supporters suggest.
"I look at the big casino states, places like California, Pennsylvania, Nevada ... I don't see a lot of good news," she said Wednesday afternoon just before debate on the House floor began. "They have some of the biggest shortfalls in the country. And that's what Massachusetts wants to model itself on? To me, this is a race to the bottom."
Like other opponents, Ms. Balser fears that gambling will lead to spikes in crime, bankruptcies, homelessness, incarceration and other negative affects on society.
"With greater proximity [to casinos], the number of addicts goes up," she said.
Critics also believe Massachusetts could be shooting itself in the foot financially with the move. The state's lottery, several lawmakers said, is the most profitable and efficiently run in the nation. Some fear that casinos will lead to significant drops in the number of lottery tickets sold, the proceeds of which fund aid to local governments across the state.
"We are gambling with that lottery," said Rep. Thomas P. Conroy, a Democrat who represents Wayland. Mr. Conroy is also a candidate for his party's nomination for the U.S. Senate.
Opponents also said that the casinos could steal existing business from hotels, entertainment venues and other establishments. Others complained that the bill is inherently unfair because it establishes three geographic "regions" and allows one license for each area. Such a move, critics believe, could limit growth because it would prohibit, for example, two casinos in the Boston area, even though the city's population may be able to support both.
While most pro-casino Democrats are focused on the economic benefits, some Republicans are supporting the bill because they don't believe government should keep people from gambling.
"You can't legislate everything," Rep. Paul Frost, an Auburn Republican, said on the House floor Wednesday afternoon. Gamblers "are doing it anyway. They already have a venue to go gamble."
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